Rory McIlroy determined to reinstate himself as natural leader at Troon
This is the stuff that matters. Just ask Rory McIlroy. If, as many have claimed in this tumultuous week, the world No 4 and the three players ranked ahead of him, have cast golf the sport in a bad light by withdrawing from the Olympics, then this is surely the time to flick that switch to “good”. Stage an Open classic here and the Rio gloom will be forgotten.
Of course, it will not happen as we might hope. The chances of the ‘Big Four’ all battling it down the stretch are about the same odds as Colin Montgomerie not feeling in his element when he hits the opening drive at his hometown course at 6.35am. But at least two of them should loom into contention and give the game something not to be withdrawn about.
McIlroy relishes a corner. He is at his best when he feels belligerent enough to show his undoubted quality. Certainly, he is bristling with indignation here, after questioning golf’s relevance as an Olympic sport, and because of the fact he has not won any of the last six majors as Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson have broken through.
OK, six majors hardly represents a drought, particularly as the 27-year-old missed one – his defence at last year’s Open – with an ankle injury and was nowhere near 100 per cent for the next. Someone said he was in danger of becoming Ringo in golf’s ‘Fab Four’, but with four majors he is still the Paul or John.
Yet McIlroy judges himself against absurd standards and his competitive spirit will be bursting with the determination to restate his standing as the sport’s natural leader.
“Rory will hate being No 4 and we are all expecting him to step up now,” Paul McGinley, McIlroy’s fellow Irishman, told The Daily Telegraph. “Normally, he’s been very good in his career at reacting to other people’s success.”
Respect to world No 1 Jason Day, but Dustin Johnson has to be rated the chief danger. His maiden major at this year’s US Open has clearly injected so much confidence and with his length and with this kindly weather forecast he could run amok on this 7,190-yard layout, comparatively short despite being a par 71.
On the eve of this 145th edition of golf’s oldest professional tournament, Johnson, in his nonchalant laid-back manner, revealed his strategy on the first three holes – “yeah I can drive them, if the wind’s normal”. They are 370 yards, 391 yards, 379 yards respectively. Quite ridiculous.
Yet it gets tougher. Boy, doesn’t it. Make hay on the front seven, try desperately not to let the score scatter asunder on the last 11. The eighth, of course, is the 120-yard Postage Stamp, one of the greatest holes in golf and, together with the 12th at Augusta, the finest example that challenging really does not mean long. Whoever wins will have to share star-status with the Postage Stamp. There will be every number from two to eight. And, who knows, maybe fewer and more probably more.
Except the Met Office predicts it will not blow that treacherously.
Saturday, the gusts rise to 20mph, but the locals will assure you that is nothing greater than a throaty exhalation. Alas, all of us who agree with that old Scottish maxim “nae wind, nae golf” could be disappointed. Martin Slumbers, the R&A chief executive, is one. “The beauty of a links golf course is the weather makes a massive difference,” he said. “The way the ball moves on the fairways, depending on how firm it is, the ability to control that. The ability to make sure where you want to put the ball versus where the ball has to finish on the green. I think that protection, and then you add in the weather is what makes links golf so difficult. The course is soft and with more rain on its way will only get softer.”
That means this Ayrshire links’s main defence will be the bunkers and, as Nick Faldo pointed out, fortune will favour the bunkerless brave. “The bottom line is that it will all be about nerve this week,” the three-time Open champion said. “If you think you can thread those tee-shots, aim at a bush and be confident you can fade it and draw it, then that’s what you need. It’s a real ball-strikers golf course. But if you hit one bad shot you can take a seven and eight.”
It is a delicious challenge, but without it blowing hard then it is wise to look no further than the big-hitters and those in middle-of-the-face form.
There has been a big word on the range for the New Zealander Danny Lee, while the English duo of Danny Willett and Justin Rose will obviously have their supporters, and rightly so. A personal fancy is for Lee Westwood yet again to launch the English challenge and who would begrudge him, after a record nine top-threes in the majors without a taste of the glory?
So long as it goes without controversy, however, the authorities probably will be relieved whatever. As well as the Olympics exodus, there has been the rules rumpus at the US Open to ridicule the game. Add that to Muirfield voting to retain their male-only membership and McIlroy, quite rightly, shining the torch of golf’s pathetically weak drug policy, then this has been a harrowing spell – and that is without the continued absence of the one true superstar Tiger Woods. Over to you, Rory.